By Guest Writer Tatiana Gnuva
Image:
Ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated from their homes” by Mil.ru is licensed under CC BY 4.0 DEED.

Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as “Artsakh,” was home to 120,000 people, most of whom were ethnic Armenians. Artsakh is isolated from the Republic of Armenia and is only connected to the country through the Lachin corridor. The independent republic of Artsakh functioned as a de-facto breakaway Armenian state yet was long claimed by Azerbaijan. For centuries, Artsakh was a primarily Armenian region, but in the early 1920s, it was incorporated into the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic under the decision of the USSR’s Joseph Stalin. Starting in December of 2022 and lasting over ten months, Azerbaijan slowly implemented its strategy to claim the territory. The country’s actions plunged the region into poverty and insecurity, dramatically lowering human rights standards. In December of 2022, Azerbaijani protestors blocked the corridor, effectively limiting movement to Artsakh. The protestors masqueraded as an environmental demonstration to raise awareness about illegal mining in Artsakh, carrying signs with slogans like “save nature” and “stop pollution.” These protests acted as a tool to put pressure on the region and scare off the ethnic Armenians living in the territory or forcibly make them accept Azerbaijani sovereignty.

Lack of Access to Food and Medicine 

The main food markets in the villages within Nagorno-Karabakh remained closed. Most locals did not see fresh produce for months. Armenian authorities were forced to implement a rationing system for food in the face of Azerbaijan’s “siege techniques.” Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the area but did little to clear the blockade. Access to medical supplies in the region was significantly restricted even as the Azerbaijani foreign ministry maintained that medical vehicles were allowed access to the territory. Necessary supplies for infant care, like baby formula, were nowhere to be found. The Red Cross, one of the only humanitarian organizations still allowed access to the region, brought medicine and necessities such as diapers across the corridor. However, this was only a short-term solution. The hospitals within Stepanakert and the other villages in the area ran out of supplies, leaving children to be treated with medication meant for adults. Protesters’ blockade of the only access route to Artsakh undoubtedly put pressure on Armenians residing in the area. These human rights violations and the later escalation of hostilities between Artsakh and Azerbaijan made it impossible for those living in the region to stay.  

Artsakh’s Progressive Isolation

Before this new barrier in the Lachin corridor, Armenians in the region already suffered from a lack of access to electricity, water, and gas. As the blockade continued for months, the Armenian ministry called on Russian peacekeepers to intervene and clear a path in the Lachin corridor; this action underlined how the peacekeepers failed to fulfill their obligation under Provision 6 of the trilateral statement. 

In April, Azerbaijan set up a military checkpoint in the Lachin corridor to “ensure border security” and further intimidate Armenians living in Artsakh. The US State Department and other governments condemned Azerbaijan’s escalating hostilities. In June, tensions only increased further as Azerbaijani forces killed Armenian soldiers in Artsakh. Azerbaijan entirely cut off Artsakh from Armenia in July, barring even the Red Cross from entering the territory (after accusing the Armenian branch of the Red Cross of smuggling unauthorized materials into the region).

In September, over 100,000 ethnic Armenians in Artsakh were ultimately forced to flee to Armenia after clashes with the Azerbaijani army resulted in the deaths of 400 people, including civilians. International groups have labeled Azerbaijani forces’ human rights violations in Artsakh as “ethnic cleansing.” “Ethnic cleansing” is defined by the UN as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” Starvation and isolation used as warfare forced nearly all ethnic Armenians to flee to Armenia.

 Dissolution of Artsakh’s State Institutions and International Condemnation of Azerbaijan

Samvel Shahramanyan, the head of Artsakh’s local government, signed a decree mandating the dissolution of all of the republic’s state institutions effective in January 2024. Azerbaijan is acting rapidly to absorb Nagorno-Karabakh. In the wake of its move to take Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has levied several stipulations, including calling on Armenia to change its state constitution to reflect the loss of the territory, and demanding land access to Nakhichevan. Pashinyan’s response to these demands has been surprisingly positive, and he has declared himself supportive of efforts to reconcile both countries. His declarations come at a time when Azerbaijani forces have renewed hostilities at the border, most recently resulting in four Armenian soldiers killed by Azerbaijani fire. Popular opinion of the political leader has steadily declined, with his political opponents going as far as accusing him of state treason. Even if Pashinyan’s government is favorable to some of the Azerbaijani requests, public opinion might sway any decision-making regarding Azerbaijan’s requests. 

Some have called for the intervention of international human rights institutions and courts in the wake of Azerbaijani forces’ actions. Armenia has recently ratified the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, officially becoming a state party in December 2023. Armenia could call on the ICC to weigh in on the matter and put Azerbaijan on trial for the country’s human rights violations in Artsakh. Azerbaijan is a non-party state of the court. However, it could still face investigation and repercussions from the court. Following precedent, the ICC could launch an investigation into Azerbaijan, even if the country is not a state party. In a similar case, the ICC launched an investigation into the forcible deportation and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority onto the territory of an ICC member, Bangladesh, by a non-ICC member state, Myanmar. This could also dissuade further attacks from Azerbaijan, as aggression on Armenia, a soon-to-be state party in the ICC, would launch an investigation by an ICC prosecutor.

Artsakh’s Lost Legacy 

Artsakh, long considered an Armenian ancestral home, features several priceless cultural buildings immortalizing Armenian history and culture. Armenian authorities fear the consequences that the forced departure of Armenians will have on the cultural monuments in the region. Armenian churches, monasteries, and cemeteries that are now located in Azerbaijani territory (for example, in Nakhichevan) were destroyed and left to fall into ruin by Azerbaijani authorities and residents. Armenian officials recognize that the same fate may befall the buildings and the ancient legacy the Artsakh residents were forced to leave behind.

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